The First Fallen chronicles the lives of three LGBTQIA+ Brazilians in 1983 as they become among the first to contract the AIDS virus in their communities. Suzano (Johnny Massaro) is a biology student living a relatively mundane upper-class life. He realizes he’s sick but can’t figure out how. Rose (Renata Carvalho) is a transgender woman who grew up on the streets and has fought for every bit of solace she can find. Humberto (Victor Camilo) is a documentarian who uses his filmmaking talent to capture his, Suzano and Rose’s lives over the course of the year. The film opens on Jan. 1, 1983, and ends on the first day of 1984. In that time, their lives, and the community around them, irreversibly changes.
Writer-director Rodrigo de Oliveira takes a patient, intimate approach to his heroes’ stories, allowing the horror of what is happening to their bodies unfold over the year. Suzano develops lesions in his skin that won’t go away, for instance. It’s focused on the human side of the AIDS virus and avoids the potential melodrama that the story invites.
At the same time, The First Fallen does a good job using its characters as stand-ins for the communities hit hardest during the 1980s. The third act finds the three living in a remote house together, quarantined and trying whatever medicine they can get. Antihistamines, antivirals, vitamins — anything their families will send. As the three grow closer, they become a tight-knit support group. They grapple with the origin of the virus. In a standout scene, Rose speaks directly to Humberto’s camera and states her belief that the virus will never go away because the people in charge are getting what they want out of it — the death of “undesirable” communities. It’s a particularly memorable moment and not without a hint of geopolitical truth given what we know of the Reagan administration in particular. Carvalho nails the righteous anger.
Although full of standout moments, The First Fallen isn’t without its faults. The film’s budgetary limitation feels very apparent, particularly in expository sequences that feel like two actors in a room with a camera, sans atmosphere. Its meticulous pace is also somewhat difficult in the outset of the film; the build-up to diagnosis goes a long way toward establishing character, but the story doesn’t really take off until the third act. Although ultimately worth it, the early segment feels somewhat repetitive.
That said, the opening and closing — which feature a meditation by Suzano about the first to die in war — set a tone for the entire film that resonated well after the credits rolled. We’re still grappling to this day with the scourge of the virus and the lives it claimed four decades ago, and The First Fallen does right by the significance of their stories.